Together with a women-only group I recently followed a tour of the Red Light District in Amsterdam. It was given by former sex-worker and founder of the Prostitute Information Centre, Mariska Majoor. She is a vibrant, warm and articulate woman who defies the image of the hard-bitten prostitute so often portrayed by the media. Mariska worked as a window prostitute in the city for six years during the 80s. Her aim in setting up the PIC is to help working girls with any of their problems and also to educate the general public about the life of a sex-worker.
She told us that far from being victims, many women have consciously chosen to go into prostitution as a rapid way of making money. In Holland a sex-worker has to keep accounts and pay VAT like any other entrepreneur. Although the tax office is happy to treat prostitutes as regular business people, banks have more Draconian attitudes. They won’t open business accounts for prostitutes believing that handling money earned in the sex industry sullies their reputation. A mortgage is also a no-no for the same reason, as is a pension or unemployment insurance. So although the possibilities of rapid turnovers are tempting, long term security is not part of the job description.
Working the Windows
While working in the windows Mariska became an expert people-watcher. She had plenty of time to observe prospective clients’ body language, developing a fine-tuned eye for signs of aggression. She didn’t like macho-swaggerers, preferring, as a rule, older clients. Eye-contact was avoided before the transaction took place, making it easier to reject someone with a quick shake of the head or wag of the finger.
The price and customer’s needs are agreed at the door. A transaction usually lasts 10-15 minutes and costs from 35 to 50 euros. The girls rent the rooms on an hourly basis, usually on 5-8 hour shifts. The landlords receive no commission, maintaining legal neutrality. In a bid to clean up the sex industry in the 90s, rules about hygiene were brought into force. No more carpets or soft furnishings but wipe-clean surfaces now dominate, making the brothel’s interior look more like a sterile kitchen than a love nest.
A working girl may be positive about her profession but she knows that friends and family probably won’t share her views. Preserving anonymity may seem an impossible task for a window prostitute who sells her wares very publicly, but glamorous clothing, make-up, and perhaps a wig can make even a familiar face unrecognizable. Nevertheless, taking photos of the windows in the Red Light District is severely frowned upon.
Mariska turned her first trick aged16, in the provincial town where she grew up. Her first client was 71-years-old. She needed 250 guilders and no, it wasn’t to feed her drug habit or because she was forced to, it was to finance her childhood dream of owning a German Shepherd dog. After just two clients she had earned enough to buy the pet she so longed for.
I know I’ll never look at a window prostitute in the same way again and I leave the PIC feeling proud I live in a city where prostitution is legal. It would be naïve to believe that there aren’t serious problems in this neighbourhood, but at least there is a possibility that a sex-worker can make her living in a clean and safe environment. In 2007 Mariska commissioned her aunt to make a bronze statue of Belle, a feisty working girl. This is the only statue dedicated to sex-workers in the world.
This article was originally published In the Powder Room
It is a reflection of one woman’s experience of prostitution and does not necessarily reflect the experiences of other workers in the same industry.